In a wrestling ring under a set of train tracks in London’s Bethnal Green, a transvestite has a midget wearing a wolverine mask in a painful looking headlock. Pressed into the corner of the ring, the midget struggles his way up to the third rope in an unsuccessful bid to escape. Instead he is slammed into the floor below with a sickening crunch.
Welcome to the world of “lucha libre”, Mexico’s staggeringly bizarre form of wrestling which has crossed the Atlantic and this weekend will entertain thousands of fans in a series of five matches in north London.
The ring in Bethnal Green where “Cassandra” the transvestite, and his smaller opponent “Lubito”, are fighting is temporary - a place where the 16 Mexican wrestlers who arrived earlier this week can relax and spa. The real entertaining will take place at the Camden Roundhouse.
For four nights from this Saturday a steady stream of masked men will flip, slam, pummel and hurl each other into carefully choreographed oblivion, much to the delight of lucha fans who flock to matches for the death defying acrobatic moves the wrestlers employ, and the pantomime storylines that dominate each bout. There is even a Sunday matinee for the kids.
“Lucha libre is like a religion in Mexico,” said Cassandra, one of the few luchadores who chooses not to wear a mask and instead opts for a brown and gold leotard and makeup instead. “When I was a child, my family and I would go to church on Sunday morning and then head to down to the nearest lucha ring. The wrestlers were our heroes.”
To say that Mexico lives and breathes lucha would be something of an understatement. It might seem like a freak show, but it is the second most popular sport after football and wrestlers are venerated as living legends, comparable perhaps only to the near god-like regard India reserves for its Bollywood stars.
But in recent years lucha has begun rapidly winning over new fans outside of Mexico, none more so than in Britain which is undergoing something of a wrestling renaissance.
Where once wrestlers were thought of as a bygone mullet-ridden phenomenon of the 1980s, major American leagues such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the controversially brutal Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) are now able to sell out huge arenas like the O2 in a matter of days.
The British promoters of lucha libre hope similar numbers of fans will begin flocking to the Mexican equivalent.
“This is the second time lucha has come to Britain and we’re already drawing up plans to have it return early next year,” said Andy Wood, the London club promoter who organised this weekend’s fight alongside Bolivian promoter Ruben Cordero. “I’d say about twenty percent of the audience are first timers, the other eighty percent are there because they love to experience the kitsch craziness of Mexican wrestling.”
And kitsch it certainly is. The average night of lucha libre always involves men in shiny spandex trousers and masks going at each other mano a mano. The good guys are known as tecnicos(technical), wrestlers who abide by the rules, do the most dangerous acrobatic stunts and tend to have the most fervent fans. Their opponents are rudos (rule breakers) who opt for things like chairs and table legs to attack their opponents.
For working class Mexicans, lucha libre has offered them a brief respite from the poverty and corruption that so often surrounds them. Each week they see virtue triumph over evil, corrupt rule-breaking wrestlers receive their comeuppance from their moral heroes.
Then of course there are the midget wrestlers and the exoticos, transvestites like Cassandra, who add an unmistakable element of carnival madness to an already unorthodox form of entertainment.
Despite Mexico’s staunchly Catholic population, homosexuality in lucha libre has been tolerated ever since Cassandra, already a professional luchadore at the time, came out of the closet in 1989 and began wrestling in makeup.
“I had to break a lot of taboos and face a lot of rejection, even from wrestlers who knew I was gay,” he recalled. “But I was never vulgar with my moves. I had to show my fans that I was just as good a wrestler as anybody else. Now it is very open-minded.”
But one thing that has never changed in lucha libre is the importance of the masks. For all wrestlers (other than exoticos) a luchadors’ mask is his very essence and many wrestlers religiously wear their masks even in the real world.
“When we first went to Mexico to see if any wrestlers would come over to England we ended up having meetings in boardrooms with people who would wear smart suits and face masks,” said Wood. “It was very surreal.”
The only times a wrestler is de-masked is either when he nears retirement and wishes to show fans who he really is, or during much-anticipated grudge matches where both opponents bet their masks with the loser having to reveal his true identity.
The sport’s most famous wrestler, Santo, had a career that spanned five decades and was quite possibly the most famous Mexican of his era before his death in 1984. His son, El Hijo Del Santo, is equally famous and is the star attraction on this weekend’s billing.
“For me lucha libre is something that has no boundaries and can easily cross language barriers or different cultures,” he said following a brief spa with his arch nemesis, Blue Demon Jnr. “The British public are a great audience, they become very passionate when they see us and I like that.”